A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton Twists Bush’s Words


Hillary Clinton has continued to twist Jeb Bush’s words, suggesting that he thinks “the nurse who stands on her feet all day or the trucker who drives all night” needs to “work longer hours.” Bush did say “people need to work longer hours,” but he has since said he was talking about part-time workers who want full-time hours.

We don’t know what Bush had in mind when he first spoke, but his explanation is consistent with his previous statements about the underemployed.

Bush’s “longer hours” comment exploded on social media, and in traditional media, as Democrats pounced on a carelessly worded response to a question about tax reform that the Republican presidential candidate fielded in New Hampshire from The Union Leader:

Bush, July 8: My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut that we’re in.

His campaign quickly clarified that the “longer hours” quote was a reference to the underemployed and part-time workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 6.5 million people in June who said they were working part-time because they couldn’t find full-time work or because business was slow. By comparison, that figure was 4.6 million when the Great Recession started in December 2007.

Nonetheless, a number of Democrats criticized Bush for being out-of-touch, accusing him of saying Americans ought to work more than the standard 40 hours a week.

“Americans already work the longest hours of any people in the western industrialized world,” said Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “In fact, 80 percent of working men work longer than 40 hours a week.”

(Actually, Sanders was wrong. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Americans worked more hours than the average for OECD-member countries, but ranked 15th out of the 34 countries surveyed. And, OECD reported, 83 percent of men and 65 percent of women in the U.S. worked 40 hours or more — but that’s not the same as working more than 40 hours.)

The jabs continued on Twitter, where Rep. Steve Israel wrote: “Bush: ‘People should work longer hours’; next up: Bush: ‘GDP could double without those lazy weekends.’ ”

The Clinton campaign tweeted out, “Anyone who believes Americans aren’t working hard enough hasn’t met enough American workers.”

Bush addressed the budding controversy himself the same day, telling reporters, “If we’re going to grow the economy, people need to stop being part-time workers, they need to be having access to greater opportunities to work.”

Bush, July 8: You can take it out of context all you want, but high-sustained growth means that people work 40 hours rather than 30 hours and that by our success, they have money, disposable income for their families to decide how they want to spend it rather than getting in line and being dependent on government.

Health-care costs are rising. In many places, the cost of doing business is extraordinarily high and the net result of that is that business start-up rates are at an all-time low. Workforce participation rates are low. If anyone is celebrating this anemic recovery then they’re totally out of touch. The simple fact is that people are really struggling. So giving people a chance to work longer hours has got to be part of the answer. If not, you’re going to see people lose hope.

That explanation is not only a plausible clarification of his original comment, it is consistent with previous statements Bush has made about the problem of underemployment.

For example, when laying out his economic plan on Feb. 4 at the Detroit Economic Club, Bush said the Obama economy had led to workers’ hours being cut (at the 14:51 mark of the video).

Bush, Feb. 4: For several years now, they have been recklessly degrading the value of work, the incentive to work, and the rewards of work. We have seen them cut the definition of a full-time job from 40 hours to 30 hours, slashing the ability of paycheck earners to make ends meet. We have seen them create welfare programs and tax rules that punish people with lost benefits and higher taxes for moving up those first rungs of the economic ladder.

Bush was referring to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for employers with at least 50 workers to provide health insurance to full-time employees, defined as those who work 30 hours or more per week. Bush and other critics of the ACA say that encourages employers to cut workers’ hours to avoid the insurance requirement.

The Bush campaign also addressed the issue of underemployment in a July 5 Medium blog post, stating: “More than 6 million people are working part-time jobs when they’d prefer full-time.” That same post blamed the Obama-backed Affordable Care Act for “holding down worker hours and reducing the payoff from working.”

And in an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News on June 2, Bush lamented that the “work force participation rate is lower than it was 30 years ago.”

(As an aside, we have noted that the ratio of part-time workers to all workers is about the same as when Obama took office. We also addressed the reasons for the declining workforce participation rate.)

Some Democrats have softened their tone on the “longer hours” quote in light of Bush’s clarification. For example, Sanders said this July 10 after CNN anchor Chris Cuomo accused Sanders of twisting Bush’s words: “Well, if [Bush] is talking about the need for more full-time jobs rather than part-time jobs, he’s absolutely correct. That’s — that’s what we have to. But I want to reiterate. We work — our people work today the longest hours of any people in any major industrialized country.”

Clinton has continued to take digs at Bush’s “longer hours” comment, suggesting that Bush thinks that already hard-working Americans need to work harder still. One example came during a speech on July 13 at the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference. (starting at the 11:36 mark)

Clinton, July 13: Now you probably heard Governor Bush say last week that Americans just need to work longer hours. Well, he should tell that to the farm workers breaking their backs picking fruit in Southern California. Or he should tell that to the dishwashers working their hands raw in the kitchens of Las Vegas. Or he should tell that to the nurse who stands on her feet all day or the trucker who drives all night or the fast-food workers marching in the streets for better pay. They don’t need a lecture; they need a raise.

Clinton made nearly identical remarks when outlining her economic policy plan the same day in New York City (starting at the 21:30 mark).

Clinton, July 13: Now, you may have heard Governor Bush say last week that Americans just need to work longer hours. Well, he must not have met very many American workers. Let him tell that to the nurse who stands on her feet all day or the teacher who is in that classroom or the trucker who drives all night. Let him tell that to the fast food workers marching in the streets for better pay. They don’t need a lecture; they need a raise.

The Clinton campaign says she was simply making the point that the central economic problem for American workers is not that they need to work longer hours, but rather that they are not paid enough for the hours they do work.

“During this speech, Hillary Clinton laid out what she views as the defining economic challenge of our time: Raising incomes for hardworking Americans so they can afford a middle class life,” Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin told us via email. “The contrast she was making with Bush is that he’s not offering any ideas to address this central economic challenge.”

That’s an argument worthy of political debate. But by highlighting Bush’s comment about people needing to work longer hours and following that with the suggestion that Bush needs to “tell that to the nurse who stands on her feet all day or the teacher who is in that classroom or the trucker who drives all night,” Clinton implies that Bush thinks those workers need to work more hours. Those are full-time workers, but Bush says he wasn’t referring to them at all.

Misrepresenting your opponent’s words is a campaign staple, of course. It reminds us at FactCheck.org of Republicans twisting Obama’s quote, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that,” and of Obama spinning Mitt Romney’s quote that “we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man,” referring to Osama bin Laden.

Bush’s “longer hours” comment makes for hard-to-resist material during a heated campaign, appealing to full-time workers who might be offended by someone saying he or she needs to work longer hours. We’d be surprised if this doesn’t continue to be a frequent attack point. But Bush has since clarified that his words were being misinterpreted, and that he was making an argument in favor of part-time workers who want more hours to be given those opportunities.

— Robert Farley, with Joe Nahra